War his­tory leaves ques­tions unan­swered


IN all the mil­lions of words and pages that have been writ­ten about wars in re­cent decades, rel­a­tively lit­tle at­ten­tion has been paid to the sto­ries of soldiers who ran away rather than fac­ing the en­emy in mor­tal com­bat.

Amer­i­can TV and print jour­nal­ist Charles Glass has cho­sen to mine this topic in some de­tail in The De­sert­ers, which fo­cuses mostly on men who went “over the hill” in the Sec­ond World War.

He cov­ers a lot of in­ter­est­ing ground, but ul­ti­mately many read­ers will be left with more ques­tions than an­swers. Canada, which con­trib­uted more per capita to the Al­lied war ef­fort than al­most any other na­tion, is mostly miss­ing in ac­tion in this book.

Close to 100,000 Bri­tish ser­vice­men de­serted in the Sec­ond World War, and al­most 50,000 Amer­i­cans. Glass makes no men­tion of Cana­dian num­bers, and they are not easy to find.

For those who are in­ter­ested, one Cana­dian sol­dier was ex­e­cuted for de­ser­tion in the war. Pte. Harold Joseph Pringle was shot by a fir­ing squad in Italy on July 5, 1945.

Glass does in­clude, com­plete with pho­tos, the story of Pte. Ed­die Slovik, the only Amer­i­can to be killed by the state as a de­serter in all the years fol­low­ing the Civil War of the 1860s.

Hun­dreds of Amer­i­cans were con­demned to death for de­ser­tion in that lengthy pe­riod, but all were spared by their pres­i­dent, Woodrow Wil­son in the First World War and Franklin Rooseevelt in the sec­ond.

An­other de­tail, not in the book, 23 Cana­dian de­sert­ers were ex­e­cuted in the first war. In 2001, when Win­nipeg’s Ron Duhamel was min­is­ter of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs, all 23 were for­mally par­doned by the Govern­ment of Canada. It was a move that was sup­ported unan­i­mously by all mem­bers of Par­lia­ment.

Glass has cho­sen to fo­cus on the in­di­vid­ual sto­ries of three men who de­serted, two Amer­i­cans and one Bri­tish sol­dier. Their sto­ries are quite dif­fer­ent, and all are quite com­pelling in their own way. His most de­tailed por­trait is that of Pte. Steve Weiss, an un­der­age Brook­lyn lad who forced his fa­ther to sign his en­list­ment pa­pers.

Weiss is still alive, and he and Glass have be­come friends. He served with dis­tinc­tion and val­our in com­bat, both in Italy and in France. But even­tu­ally he cracked un­der pres­sure, and he de­serted more than once.

Weiss went into hid­ing in France, helped by mem­bers of the Re­sis­tance. He later helped the French in their ef­forts be­fore the coun­try was lib­er­ated from Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion.

Weiss be­came a psy­chol­o­gist and helped in ef­forts to deal with ser­vice per­son­nel who were af­flicted with what we now re­fer to as post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der. In the first war, the term was “shell shock.” In the sec­ond war, it be­came known as “bat­tle fa­tigue.”

To mil­i­tary lead­ers like U.S. Gen. Ge­orge S. Pat­ton, what­ever you called it, the soldiers who suf­fered from it were noth­ing but cow­ards who de­served to pay the ul­ti­mate price.

At the time, Pat­ton’s view was un­doubt­edly shared by a ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans, most of whom never fought in uni­form, and de­ser­tion con­tin­ued to be one of the hid­den sto­ries of war. This was prob­a­bly the case un­til Viet­nam, when thou­sands of Amer­i­cans de­serted or left the U.S. rather than be­ing drafted into the mil­i­tary.

Per­haps the most com­pelling part of The De­sert­ers is the 20-page in­tro­duc­tion where Glass neatly sum­ma­rizes some of the colour­ful his­tory, like the fact that author Mark Twain man­aged to desert from both sides in the Amer­i­can Civil War.

He also sug­gests that cow­ardice is far less of a cause of de­ser­tion than bad man­age­ment of man­power or the shear drudgery of life in the mil­i­tary.

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